Nam Prik Pao Vs. Sambal Oelek – Let’s Compare Chili Pastes

Nam prik pao and sambal oelek are two of the most beloved chili pastes from Southeast Asia. Neither is excessively hot and both share a similar bright red color; however, you would be wrong to assume that these chili pastes are even close to identical in terms of flavor and function. How do the two differ? Let’s break things down.

How does nam prik pao differ from sambal oelek?

Nam prik pao is a Thai chili paste, so the origin alone makes it different from Indonesia’s sambal oelek. While nam prik pao is linked primarily with Thai cooking, you will find versions of sambal oelek all over Southeast Asia and throughout the world. Nam prik pao’s ingredients include fish sauce and shrimp paste, both of which work together to give a strong and distinctive umami quality to even the mildest versions. Some varieties of nam prik pao have a distinctly fishy taste as a result. 

Compared to nam prik pao’s intense flavors, sambal oelek offers a clean chili pepper flavor that might include a little acidity and salt. Some versions do have garlic but most are known for having a relatively simple flavor profile. Its mild heat and unchallenging flavors are why this condiment is as popular as it is. While nam prik pao’s flavor will not work in all dishes, you can use sambal oelek as an all-purpose hot sauce, particularly if its watered down. Use it in any dish where you need a mild heat and nothing else. Sambal oelek has no animal products and is therefore vegan. 

Side note: Don’t be confused between sambal oelek and sriracha sauce. While Huy Fong Foods makes popular versions of both (the famous rooster on the label for each) and they both use red chili peppers, they are otherwise quite different. Sriracha is a very popular chili garlic sauce (effectively a hot sauce) while sambal oelek is a chili paste that typically has no garlic. Learn more here.

–> Learn More: Make Your Own Homemade Sambal Oelek

If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other as a substitute?

Because nam prik pao contains shrimp paste and fish sauce, it has a noticeably different flavor profile from sambal oelek. It may not be the best substitute if what you want is a plain, mildly flavored source of heat. However, it should still work in most or all of the applications that require sambal oelek. It is a great option if want to increase the umami note in certain dishes. Nam prik pao probably will not be a good alternative otherwise in most Western preparations, though it might make a good marinade for meat.

Sambal oelek on its own will not provide everything that you’d expect from a substitute for nam prik pao, so it is not an ideal alternative. However, you can use it to make a decent substitute by adding your own shrimp paste and fish sauce. 

–> Learn More: What Are The Best Substitutes For Nam Prik Pao?

When should you use each?

Traditionally, nam prik pao is used as a dipping sauce for fish and vegetables. It also gets added to tom kha pet soup and to Thai-style fried rice. Along with those applications, it shows up in a vast number of Thai curries. Some westerners pair nam prik pao with pork rinds or simply add it to vegetables.

Sambal oelek is a traditional table condiment that was originally used to add mild heat to various Indonesian dishes. Its flavor profile is subtle enough for it to meld perfectly with both Western and Eastern flavors. It works well in Indonesian nasi goreng and as a marinade for American barbecued ribs or as the heat source for buffalo wings. 

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on September 22, 2023 to include new content.
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